In its 2011 election manifesto Thanet Labour Party promised that “House building will be focused on brownfield sites” and that “building on greenfield sites will be resisted”. One of the key greenfield sites singled out by Labour for protection against house building encroachment was the 50 acre EuroKent site, comprising a small industrial estate and extensive high quality agricultural land, on both sides of the New Haine Road, just behind the Westwood Cross shopping centre. The land belongs to East Kent Opportunities (EKO) a limited liability partnership set up in 2008 and jointly owned by Thanet District Council and Kent County Council.EKO joined forces with private developers Rose Farm Estates, who own adjoining land and in 2010 plans were put forward to build 550 houses on this land. The then Labour leader Clive Hart, told the press that the plans were “incredibly foolhardy and a waste of taxpayers money”. So concerned was Thanet Labour Party that they staged a mini protest at the EKO site. Steven Ladyman then Thanet South’s Labour MP and past and current labour councillors including party leaders Clive Hart and Iris Johnston were pictured demonstrating at the site. Fast forward to 2012. Labour are now running Thanet Council and Clive Hart is Leader. As Leader Hart was appointed to represent TDC on the management board of EKO. But instead of opposing EKOs plans to build houses on the EuroKent site as Labour’s election manifesto had promised, Hart amazingly begins to support the plans. When the plans were unanimously rejected by Thanet Council’s planning committee in November 2013 Hart, at an EKO management board meeting, astonishingly votes in favour of a costly planning appeal creating the farcical situation whereby the Leader of Thanet Council votes to support an appeal against the Council he is in charge of!
I have tried to find out how much this ridiculous situation has cost the taxpayer but EKO refuse to answer my Freedom of Information requests. I have now appealed to the Information Commissioner. But whatever the cost might be, it’s the taxpayer who will be footing the bill.
Shortly after I exposed Hart’s role in the EKO planning debacle and following some skatepark and airport related shenanigans Hart resigned as Council Leader. He was replaced by Iris Johnston. David Green was quickly appointed as Hart’s successor to the EKO management board. The EKO planning appeal was heard in August 2014. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, considered the matter and in a letter to Thanet Council in late October declared that EKOs planning appeal should be granted. Within days work commenced on site.
Pickles’ decision was based on the fact that, unlike most other councils in Kent, TDC did not have an up to date and properly approved local development plan including a strategic housing assessment and evidence of available house building land to cover the next 5 years. On this basis it was not possible for Thanet Council to resist building houses on the greenfield site and EKOs application could not be blocked.
Notwithstanding Pickles’ decision there is no legal reason to build houses on EKO land. Thanet as a 50:50 owner of the site could have dug its heels in and demanded that the EKO board consider alternative uses for the site. Councillor Leader Iris Johnston, who on many occasions has proudly told people about her unbending commitment to Labour’s manifesto promises, could have been true to her words and told the EKO board that TDCs ruling Labour group would not allow the house building to go ahead. But surprisingly for someone so self-professedly principled as Johnston, she didn’t!
So Labour’s refusal to stick to its manifesto promise and Pickle’s decision on the EKO appeal have now opened the floodgates for developers to submit planning applications to build houses on other green field sites in Thanet. The so-called Manston Green development, comprising of 850 houses on agricultural land less than one mile away from the EKO site, will shortly be put before TDCs planning committee and is almost certain to be approved. Applications to build housing on or around the former Manston Airport site are likely to appear quite quickly and £10 million Government finance is already in place to rip up hundreds of acres of prime agricultural land to build the new Thanet Parkway station in 2015-17 which will serve the thousands of “executive style” homes which are likely to be built on Thanet’s agricultural hinterland in the next 5 years.
Interestingly, Thanet Labour Party’s 2011 Election Manifesto said of Parkway that they would not support the station “at the expense of the environmental damage” it was likely to cause. I wonder if this promise to the people is likely to go the way of Labour’s promise to protect our green fields and open spaces and to oppose the EKO development?
It’s been said to me by a number of concerned Labour Councillors, and more than one council officer, that the failure of the Council to prepare a robust local plan; to identify a lot more brownfield land for housing development and to protect more proactively rural open and green field land, might be a deliberate ploy by TDCs political leadership and senior managers. This is because for a council with limited resources, like Thanet, house building can be very lucrative. 5-6000 new houses could generate at least £5million a year in additional council tax. Additionally, the Government’s so-called New Homes Bonus pays the equivalent of one years council tax per new house built for up to 6 years meaning that on the basis of 5-6,000 properties TDC stands to gain a staggering £30million in additional funding. So this might well be the real reason why, unlike most other councils in Kent, Labour controlled Thanet has delayed the development and implementation of a local plan and created a situation whereby developers have free rein to destroy, disfigure and despoil our open spaces and green fields.
But conspiracy theories aside, the development of 550 houses at the EKO site, 850 houses at Manston Green, the 1,000 houses already under construction at the Persimmons development at the back of Marks and Spencers and goodness knows how many houses on or around the former airport site, will create a garden city by stealth within a square mile of Westwood Cross.
Westwood Cross is already a traffic congestion nightmare with some of the worst airborne pollution in Kent. How will it cope with the massive increase in traffic and pollution resulting from building 5-6,000 new houses close by? Furthermore, we need to think about the implications of building so many houses on our water supply. Thanet is already an area designated by the Environment Agency as suffering “water stress”. Southern Water has already said that it is being forced to dump raw sewage on our beaches because its sewers are being overwhelmed by a growing population, increased incidents of climate-change related heavy rain and massively increased water run off from hard surfaces created by building over open land. Then we have the question of the additional health, social care and education services required to support the people living in the new homes.
The Green Party does not have its head in the sand. There’s no doubting that Thanet does need more housing, especially decent social rented housing for the growing number of people who can’t afford to buy or who are struggling to pay spiralling private sector rents. But just how much is needed? The Council estimates approximately 12,000 new homes by 2021. Is this a realistic figure? Where will it be built? How will it impact upon our environment and public services? These are all questions which are being avoided by the current Labour leadership of the council, the Tories and UKIP alike.
Only the Thanet Green Party is willing and able to discuss these issues and develop practical solutions such as building the vast majority of new housing on previously developed brownfield sites within our urban boundaries. Taking a tougher line on forcing the refurbishment, sale or rent of the 1,000 plus long-term empty residential properties in Thanet. Insisting on the incorporation of water re-use, micro generation and insulation technologies in all new developments. Opposing the concreting over of gardens and opens spaces. Encouraging cycling and walking and supporting better public transport to cut down on vehicle use. If Thanet Greens are elected to the Council in 2015 we will begin a major public consultation and debate on these issues and how we can develop a sustainable future for Thanet for our children and grandchildren.
More and more people are beginning to realise that the Green Party is the only political organisation in Thanet engaging in serious debate about Thanet’s future and the only political organisation putting forward sensible solutions to the environmental, social and economic challenges that we face. That’s why our membership is growing fast and why some of our members and supporters are disaffected ex-members of the Labour, Lib-Dem and even the Tory parties.